[10/19/09: Responses to Survey Questions 8 and 9 from Michael Flynn and Robert Schroeder corrected per update from Yes! Northampton.]
We are reproducing this October 16 press release and survey report by permission of Yes! Northampton. We added some modest formatting to the survey report to improve readability.
AT-LARGE SCHOOL COMMITTEE CANDIDATES
AIM FOR KEEPING ALL ELEMENTARY SCHOOLS OPEN
All four at-large candidates for Northampton School Committee have expressed skepticism about the idea of closing an elementary school to address an ongoing school budget gap, according to responses from a recent survey conducted by Yes! Northampton, a local citizen group. Candidate Mike Flynn said he does not believe “filling three schools to capacity will improve the quality of education,”, Blue DuVal said she will “will not vote for closure,” Jim Young said he would only consider closing a school “as a last resort,” and Rob Schroeder said that closing a school “has far reaching implications for our children and community” that need further study.
The candidates made these statements in response to a 10-question survey sent by Yes!Northampton to all four candidates for the two open citywide School Committee seats. The question about the school closing read: There has been a great deal of debate over the last two years about closing one of the city’s elementary schools. What criteria will you use when you decide whether a school should be closed, and what process will you employ to make that decision?
Three of the four candidates, with the exception of DuVal, also said they want the state to change the funding formula for charter schools so that local public school districts do not lose money when students attend charter schools. Mike Flynn, the only incumbent, said: “If the cost of sending a student to a charter school was equal to the amount we gain by receiving a student via school choice, it would reduce the financial impact charter schools have on the Northampton budget.”
DuVal’s said she would address the issue by enticing more charter-school students to attend public schools. She said, “Our philosophy should be to create a school system that is so wonderful that people would not think of sending their children elsewhere.”
Yes! Northampton sponsored this survey in an effort to provide Northampton voters with the information they need to make an educated choice for School Committee seats. Other questions included whether the schools should alter start times or cut the transportation budget and how the School Committee should prepare for next year’s difficult budget season.
In response to the question about start times for schools, Blue DuVal said, “a logical option to present may be a later start time for high school students and earlier one for elementary students, thus eliminating before-school child care expenses, and giving high-school students the much-needed early morning rest that studies indicate their brain may need.”
In response to the question about the transportation budget, Mike Flynn said, “I have already begun pushing to eliminate the elementary-school bus fee in our transportation policy. It has only generated a fifth of the projected revenue and has created hardships for many families in the district. Buses are running with half the amount of kids on them and the pick-up/drop-off situation at the elementary schools has been hectic and at times dangerous. We looked heavily at the transportation issues this budget season and there are not many options that would generate significant cost savings without creating major problems.”
In response to the question about preparing for next year’s budget, Rob Schroeder said, “The Commonwealth is not adequately funding public education, and this is creating hardships for municipalities across the state. We all need to be active at the state level to push the legislature and the governor to conduct an adequacy study.”
In response to the question about school leaderships’ response to the current budget crisis, James Young said, “It is heartening to see how the community has come together in response to the recent budget crises. I was impressed that administrators worked together to agree on staff cuts and jointly presented their recommendations to the School Committee.”
“The responses we received were quite thoughtful, reflective and provide a window into how the candidates would address the important issues facing our schools. I encourage every voter to read all of the responses before going to the polls on November 3,” said Joel Feldman of Yes! Northampton.
The other seats open this year on the School Committee are in specific wards and those candidates are running uncontested.
A complete copy of the survey questions and answers is attached to this release [see below] and can be obtained by email request to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Yes! Northampton is a grassroots citizen volunteer group dedicated to maintaining and expanding public resources for the city’s public schools and municipal services.
At-Large School Committee Candidates Responses
October 15, 2009
1. There has been a great deal of debate over the last two years about closing one of
the city’s elementary schools. What criteria will you use when you decide whether a
school should be closed, and what process will you employ to make that decision?
Blue Du Val: I believe that Northampton has closed too many elementary schools over
the years and most families that I’ve spoken with want to keep all four schools. I will not
vote for a closure, as this is my personal opinion also, and I believe it is much more than
a fiscal decision, it is a decision of culture, Northampton’s culture. Bridge Street and
Ryan Road schools may be the targeted schools, but both are valuable assets to our
community, and we want to attract families to our cities; not drive away our families to
school of choice. The decision to close any school would affect every student.
Mike Flynn: This issue concerns many residents within the city and is currently being
addressed by the NEW-SPIN committee. I support this process for three reasons: It
includes representatives from all the stakeholders; it is occurring before we get involved
with difficult budget decisions; it makes use of the great work done by the Strategic
As far as what criteria should be considered, I firmly believe that the decision should not
be focused on the budget and cost savings. Instead, we must consider what is in the best
interest of students and the quality of education in our schools. Cost savings do not
always equate to better educational opportunities and this issue is a perfect example of
that. The projected cost savings of closing a school is about $200,000. However, after
looking at the data and walking through the schools, I do not believe filling three
elementary schools to capacity will improve the quality of education and may in fact have
the opposite effect.
One other issue related so closing a school is that we drastically limit the number of
school choice seats in the city. This would create a loss in revenue that we rely on every
year. It may be more beneficial for the school committee and superintendent to spend
time streamlining the school choice process so we can advertise available slots early to
bring more students in.
Rob Schroeder: Closing an elementary school is an extremely complicated issue that has
far reaching implications for our children and community. Last year, everyone focused
on the financial implications of closing a school and neglected to ask the truly important
question – What is best for our children. That is the most important criteria that should
be used to evaluate closing a school.
Jim Young: I believe that our schools create unique bonds within our city’s
neighborhoods and strengthen the fabric of our community. I would consider closing a
school only as a last resort. Unfortunately, given the chronic budget deficits that
Northampton has faced in recent years, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that we
could face such a decision. Among the criteria I would consider if a decision is made to
close a school are:
• Long-term impact to the budget, i.e., would closing a school provide some
degree of certainty that the remaining schools would be well funded for
the foreseeable future.
• The ability to turn cost savings into improved educational services. If we
must close a school, there should be tangible benefits for all students
across the city to help offset the adversity it will create.
• The status of the physical plant at each school and the projected long-term
costs of maintaining a modern educational environment in each building.
• The likelihood of expanding the transportation budget and/or reducing
existing fees to assist families for whom the change creates a hardship.
The process I would employ for arriving at such a decision would involve a thorough
examination of the city’s operating budget. All other reasonable options cost cutting
options would need to be exercised first. If an insurmountable deficit still existed, I
would look to identify additional revenue sources, including tax overrides. If the size
of the deficit still merited consideration of closing a school, I would ensure that all
angles of the financial picture are analyzed and shared with the public. Obviously
community feedback would be a crucial component of the process.
2. Last year there was some debates about altering the school start times while reducing
some bus transportation. Do you think the start times for the schools should be reviewed,
and what criteria should be used to make that decision?
BDV: The time that school starts affects the lives of working parents, and out of respect
to those parents, communication with the citizens of Northampton should be the first
step, and their vote on the issue, should be the final step, in the process of considering
altering school start times. As for the criteria, a logical option to present may be a later
start time for high school students and earlier one for elementary students, thus
eliminating before-school child care expenses, and giving high-school students the much-
needed early morning rest that studies indicate their brain may need.
MF: We have looked at alternatives to the start times from a financial perspective and in
response to numerous appeals from high school parents who wanted a later start time for
their students. It is a complex issue because when we adjust the time that may help one
group of constituents, it creates a hardship for another group. Also, the bus schedule is
extremely tight allowing for very little flexibility. Having considered many of the
options this past year, I do not see adjusting transportation as a means of cost savings. It
creates too many problems for families. If we were to consider it as a possibility, I think
the most important consideration is safety. For example, if we start elementary school
after 9:00, many young students will be on their own in the morning if their parents have
to be at work. That creates problems for many families.
RS: Similar to closing a school, changing the school start times and transportation can
significantly impact children and families. The School committee must continue to focus
on what is best for the students.
JY: Yes, I think we should review school start times. Research seems to indicate that
later start times for high school children produce improvement in student focus, behavior
and productivity. Clearly such a change would require discussion with the teachers and
administrative staff, as well as open dialogue with families. The impact on transportation
coordination and extracurricular activities would also need to be understood. Ultimately,
I think that we would be remiss to forego any opportunity to provide the children of our
community with a better educational environment and I think school start times present
such an opportunity.
3. Some have argued that the City wastes money on some city services and the schools.
Do you see any areas where the school expenditures can be cut? If so, where?
BDV: When examining the FY2010 projected budget, there are questions that I have
regarding some administrative expenses, and I will examine those in further depth, as
well as central office purchasing, and whether it is being used to its best capacity. The
timing of purchases should be examined as prices fluctuate even within the school
supplies market. If we can maximize our resources by consolidating our purchases and by
purchasing at the right time, then we have essentially cut some school expenditures from
our current budget.
MF: When I was elected four years ago, I assumed I would find pockets of money in the
budget that constituted wasteful spending. However, once I combed through the budget,
I realized it was extremely tight. In fact, Northampton lacks many services and personnel
that other schools in the area have such as assistant superintendents, curriculum
coordinators, and assistant principals.
We have cut the budget so much over the years that most cuts now directly affect the
classroom: Teacher and ESP layoffs, supply budgets, etc. I do not see significant areas
where we can cut without affecting the quality of instruction in the schools. However, I
do see ways we can operate more efficiently. Schools can move to a more paperless
system for day-to-day communication via email and internal networks. Northampton can
form a collaborative partnership with area schools to do bulk ordering of supplies and
materials at a greater cost savings. We can also collaborate with these districts around
professional development to save money.
RS: Everyone in our community has a differing viewpoint on where and how the City’s
money should be spent. It’s easy to look at projects that compete with your priorities as
wasteful. The real challenge is for our community to work together to find the most
effective use of our scarce resources. Looking at our schools, we were fortunate that the
proposition 2-1/2 override was passed last year. While I was relieved to see the positive
impact that this had on our schools – keeping class size down, minimizing bus fees, etc.,
we need to remember that not everyone supported that override. It’s now the School
Committee’s responsibility to scrutinize every aspect of its budget and ensure that we are
working to provide the best education for our children.
JY: While I do not know for a fact that every dollar in the school budget is spent wisely,
and I’m sure there are people that believe there is waste, I cannot support the notion that
we ought to be looking for more areas to cut voluntarily in the face of ongoing state
4. How will you work with the teacher’s union to balance next year’s budget, given the
potential for another substantial budget deficit?
BDV: Teachers are often unappreciated for the hard work that they do, educating so
many children within one class for an entire day, with less and less support due to
financial constraints. As a member of the School Committee, I will work with the
teacher’s union to communicate with them fully and give them the full respect that they
deserve, taking the time to listen, as negotiations can be made that may not be able to
have immediate financial benefits yet that may still be able to satisfy if we do listen
MF: I believe we need to begin discussions with the union now so we can work
collaboratively and proactively to address the issue. Discussions in the heat of a tough
budget season are much more difficult than general discussions and brainstorming early
in the process. This should be a team effort and it should start now.
RS: My wife is a teacher and I have great respect for the hard work and dedication of our
teachers. They have made numerous sacrifices over the years to ensure that our schools
continue to provide the level of performance that makes Northampton schools among the
best in the area. I strongly believe that our teachers and the Teacher’s Union are
committed to maintaining the high education standards that have been set. The Teacher’s
Union and the School Committee need to work together towards that common goal.
JY: The School Committee should engage in dialogue with the teacher’s union as early
as possible to discuss any potential deficit in the upcoming budget. The balance between
providing teachers with increased wages & benefits, maintaining current teacher ratios
and keeping our best & brightest teachers in the system is a delicate one. As with all of
the Committee’s actions, negotiations with the teachers must be guided by what is best
for our children. Teachers, students and families have had to make sacrifices to overcome
budget shortfalls in years past. If teachers are asked to make additional sacrifices, it will
be critical to work constructively and proactively with the teacher’s union to make those
sacrifices as agreeable as possible to all parties.
5. What should be the role of the Northampton School Committee in advocating for any
changes in the way charter schools are funded in Massachusetts? What changes would
BDV: Charter schools take money from our public schools yet Northampton’s efforts
should first be to prioritize a high quality education for all, which in turn, should draw
people to our school system, as we do have fabulous teachers with a proven success rate.
Our philosophy should be to create a school system that is so wonderful that people
would not think of sending their children elsewhere.
MF: We need to inform members of the community about the way charter schools are
funded and encourage people to contact legislators in Boston. Many of us have already
begun asking legislators to level the playing field. If the cost of sending a student to a
charter school was equal to the amount we gain by receiving a student via school choice,
it would reduce the financial impact charter schools have on the Northampton budget.
RS: The three local charter schools, Hilltown Charter, the Chinese Immersion School in
Hadley, and the Pioneer Performing Arts Charter School, current take 152 students and
nearly $1.5 million dollars out of the Northampton Public School system. If the same
number of students went to a neighboring public school district, the financial impact
would only be around $750,000. Clearly this funding system has a deleterious impact on
public schools and needs to be addressed at the state level.
JY: It is troubling that charter schools across Massachusetts are reporting budget
surpluses at a time when “traditional” public schools face continual cuts. I believe this
issue is more appropriately handled at the state level. Ultimately I would like to see
changes that level the playing field, either allowing surpluses enjoyed by charter schools
to be returned to the state’s general fund to mitigate shortfalls borne by public schools or
restructuring the funding formula that creates these surpluses.
6. In what ways should the School Committee be exerting more leadership in the
Northampton community on behalf of our schools?
BDV: The School Committee should exert much more leadership in visible ways in
Northampton’s community and the first step is in active communication, and I
recommend an interactive blog website. I think the School Committee should also foster
unity between the schools and should be much more involved in the staying in touch with
what each school is doing as far as the school council and the PTO, as well as different
cultural events that the school may be hosting. The School Committee could also work in
conjunction with NEAT and help to organize political efforts on behalf of fund raising
and public awareness. The School Committee could also attempt to work on alternative
forms of resources such as human resources: Volunteers in our Schools (VINS) may be
an avenue that we can pursue and which currently may be under-utilized.
MF: We need to have more contact with the city council throughout the year and not just
during our annual joint session during the budget season. We have a conference
committee which is comprised of school committee members and city councilors, but
they have not convened in a number of years. That needs to change. Also, I believe we
should establish a greater presence via the media through monthly interviews on WHMP
or a regular column in the Gazette. This will allow the school committee to better inform
community members about issues within the school district.
RS: We need to trumpet the successes in our schools. Our schools are making
tremendous strides in building strong communities. Currently less than 30% of
Northampton residents have students in our public schools, so the School Committee and
the individual schools need to work on reaching out to our neighbors and engage them in
JY: From what I have seen, the School Committee already provides strong leadership on
educational issues in Northampton. The Committee should continually look for
opportunities to challenge the schools to improve student outcomes through new
educational tools, additional cultural programming, access to technology and other
advances. The School Committee should also work actively with the schools to set
standards for teacher performance, as well as strategies for recruiting and retaining
talented educators. At the same time, the Committee should help identify and promote
cost efficiencies that schools can implement to ensure long-term success of each school.
Clearly it will be challenging to improve school system performance while dealing with
financial uncertainty, but a creative and focused School Committee can help lead those
7. What changes, if any, would you make to the transportation the Northampton Public
Schools offer to students? Would you make cuts in transportation to balance next year’s
budget if there is a deficit?
BDV: Transportation cuts to balance the budget may mean the difference between a
child attending school and truancy; the cost of transportation truly needs to be examined.
Our city has a socio-economic imbalance and this has translated into inequalities in many
areas including test scores, and if that inequality also translates into absences, or worse
yet, failing grades, then how much is the true cost of transportation? We must remember
our focus: education driven; budget supports our goal.
MF: I have already begun pushing to eliminate the elementary-school bus fee in our
transportation policy. It has only generated a fifth of the projected revenue and has
created hardships for many families in the district. Buses are running with half the
amount of kids on them and the pick-up/drop-off situation at the elementary schools has
been hectic and at times dangerous. We looked heavily at the transportation issues this
budget season and there are not many options that would generate significant cost savings
without creating major problems.
RS: In today’s economy with working parents and most homes having at least one car,
many children do not take advantage of transportation offered by the town. I would be
interested in determining number of students who rely on bus transportation to get to and
from school and work to provide those students with the most cost effective
transportation as possible.
JY: It seems to me that we have already cut transportation services and raised fees as
much as possible. Since transportation cuts will likely create more negative impact on
lower income families, I’d be extremely reticent to make further cuts. One alternative that
we might explore if raising fees is a necessity is the notion of a circuit breaker that keeps
the costs for lower income families at an affordable level.
8. What is your opinion of how the leadership of the Northampton Public Schools has
handled the recent budget crises and why?
BDV: The recent budget crises were not handled adequately as families were informed
of changes and were never part of the decision making process. There was frustration felt
by many when vacation plans had to be changed as the school start date was suddenly
changed, and then budgets had to be re-adjusted with the sudden bus transportation
charges. As opposed to informing parents of changes, I believe that respect should be
given to the members of our community by the simple step of communication, and
simply by asking someone how they feel about an impending situation. As a School
Committee member, an interactive website would be a way to reach out for public
MF: I was impressed with the way administrators approached the issue as a team rather than one school versus another. Tough budget talks can create a lot of animosity and infighting, but that did not happen in the district. Instead the administrative team approached the problem collectively and collaboratively, trying to find solutions that would help the district as a whole. On the other hand, I was disappointed with the communication from the administration during the months when we were deep in budget discussions. We heard from constituents that a principal at one school was saying one thing to the families, while another principal was saying another thing. This caused confusion in the community. Also, the superintendent would propose major changes to us in our meetings, but then fall short on getting the word out clearly and concisely to families. That cannot happen again. When decisions are being made that directly impact families, they need to be well informed and informed early so they are not blindsided.
RS: Adversity is the true test of leadership and character and I think that the School Committee should be commended for refusing to close an Elementary school in an attempt to close a budget gap. Important decisions such as closing a school should never be taken lightly and there were too many unanswered questions to justify that decision. However, a successful leader needs to set a course of action and effectively communicate the rationale for their decisions. The School Committee needs to do a better job of proactively addressing these issues and in communicating to its constituents.
JY: It is heartening to see how the community has come together in response to the
recent budget crises. I was impressed that administrators worked together to agree on
staff cuts and jointly presented their recommendations to the School Committee. This
must have been among the most difficult processes they could undertake, yet they unified
to put resources where they could best help students.
9. Next year’s budget deficit may be as large as last year’s budget deficit. What should
we be doing in November and December to prepare for budget planning for the spring?
BDV: Just as I, and many others, have been volunteering within the school system for
years, I propose that we attempt to put together a board of successful consultants to
volunteer a little of their time to analyze ways in which we can prepare for budget
planning in the spring. People do make a difference, if we as a community can begin to
pool together our resources; people who care enough about the future of our children to
donate a little of their time.
MF: The budget problems we have a largely due to the State’s archaic funding formula. The Commonwealth is not adequately funding public education, and this is creating hardships for municipalities across the state. We all need to be active at the state level to push the legislature and the governor to conduct an adequacy study. This study would determine what it actually costs to educate students these days. Many in state government are not warm to the idea of an adequacy study because they will then be morally obligated to fund schools at the appropriate level. Until we solve the state funding formula problem, however, Northampton will continue to have lean budgets. I have been actively working at the state level to address this problem. Governor Patrick appointed me to the Readiness Finance Commission last year to look specifically at how the state funds public education to identify areas where we can cut costs or increase revenue. We all need to get active on this front and push for significant change in Chapter 70 funding.
RS: I believe that Northampton will face a similar and perhaps larger budget shortfall next year. It is crucial that the School Committee, Teachers, Administrators as well as all city officials start identifying ways to limit expenses and plan for the future. My strong analytical skills will be extremely valuable in this process.
Until we solve the state funding formula problem, however, Northampton will continue
to have lean budgets. I have been actively working at the state level to address this
problem. Governor Patrick appointed me to the Readiness Finance Commission last year
to look specifically at how the state funds public education to identify areas where we can
cut costs or increase revenue. We all need to get active on this front and push for
significant change in Chapter 70 funding.
JY: The School Committee should be working closely with the Mayor’s office to
understand budget projections as the planning process comes into focus. If/when
shortfalls become evident start identifying areas that might become subject to cuts and
begin planning sessions with administrators. At the same time proactive discussion of
additional funding sources and optimized resource utilization should be taking place.
10. What are your top three (3) priorities for the Northampton Public Schools next year?
What role will you hope to play in moving these priorities forward?
BDV: My top three priorities are: 1) Communication, 2) Education-driven Goals,
including classroom size, and 3) Increasing Resources, especially from alternative
sources. Northampton is a diverse community and communication is necessary so that
we can work together to decide upon our common goals when seeking the path for unity,
and for equality in our education. Just as in our homes, we first choose our priorities and
then we work our finances around those priorities, it is equally necessary for us to do that
as citizens of Northampton, when we approach our educational goals. During this
difficult economic time, our children’s education cannot suffer with crowded classes
because of budget constraints. We need to find different resources and ways to bring
money in if we cannot find ways to further cut the already challenged budget. If I am
elected to the School Committee, I plan on registering a domain and having a website so
that there can be communication between the people of Northampton and myself; so that
my role as a School Committee member at Large can be that of a true representative
delegate to the families of Northampton.
MF: My first priority for the Northampton Public Schools is to have adequate funding
from the state to relieve the burden that the school budget has had on the municipal
budget and taxpayers in our city. This will not change unless we all get active and vocal
about the issue. I will be working hard to address this issue.
My second priority is to help Northampton schools recoup personnel, services, and
programming that have been cut over the years. This is a slow process because so much
has been cut. The Strategic Planning Committee, however, helped us create a vision for
where we need to be as a district. It is time we begin working to achieve that vision.
My third priority is to look at sustainability for the system. I want to see the
Northampton Public Schools get to a financial position where services and personnel can
be sustained year to year without fear of drastic budget reductions.
RS: My three priorities are 1) Provide the best education for all students, 2) Foster open
and transparent communication between the school committee and 3) Fiscal
JY: My top three priorities for the Northampton Public Schools are:
• Work to identify long-term solutions to the school system’s financial
needs. Recognizing that we are limited to a standard 2 1/2 percent annual
increase in revenues, and that cost increases are likely to outstrip that
level, the School Committee needs to be willing to look into creative
alternatives to provide adequate funding for our schools.
• Provide our schools and teachers with the materials and resources that
allow them to stay on top of the methods that are most effective for
• At the very least maintain and eventually work towards increasing programs
in art, music, sports and other activities that prepare our children.
Video: October 14 Forum with At-Large City Council and School Committee Candidates
Gazette: “Northampton school board candidates address voters” (10/17/09)
The four candidates competing for two at-large seats on the School Committee share some positions: They all oppose closing an elementary school, and all agree that discussions about how to pare the school budget should begin early in the year, so parents can have a say.
One candidate, Michael B. Flynn, already has School Committee experience, representing Ward 7 before seeking election to one of the at-large seats. Blue Marie Duval, of 38 Sandy Hill Road, said she would launch an interactive blog as a way to stay in touch with residents. Robert A. Schroeder said his experience as a part-time manager would inform his service on the board. James J. Young said he would look for new revenue streams for city schools.